1919, Alex Beer, black market, book review, corruption, First World War, historical fiction, mystery fiction, no and furthermore, police procedural, squalor, the Four Horsemen, Vienna
Review: The Second Rider, by Alex Beer
Translated from the German by Tim Mohr
Europa, 2018. 319 pp. $17
When police Inspector August Emmerich stumbles across a corpse while pursuing a black-market ring in 1919 Vienna, he refuses to do what his superiors tell him. That’s nothing new, apparently. Emmerich, a gifted detective who longs to work in homicide, the elite police unit, has made no secret of his ambition or his contempt for idiotic rules and the men who make them.
Unfortunately for August, however, the mayor has been leaning on the police to break the black marketeering that has caused such misery in this freezing, starving, ill-clad, impoverished postwar city. Which means that even though the dead man August happens on couldn’t have committed suicide the way the coroner insists — the deceased was a shell-shocked veteran with such a debilitating tremor, he couldn’t have loaded a pistol and held it to his head — the inspector’s under orders to leave that case and crush the black market.
Naturally, his disobedience gets him into trouble, which happens about every half hour. You can’t blame him, exactly, because his superiors are much less competent than the criminals, an irony that leads to an unusual alliance. But Emmerich’s troubles aren’t always of his own making. Beer spares him nothing, so that whatever loss or indignity he can possibly endure will no doubt come his way, and soon. “No — and furthermore” doesn’t simply live here; these pages are that concept. Money trouble? Absolutely. Physical pain? He’s got it, limping from an old war wound that he dares not reveal, for fear that he’ll be farmed out to a desk job.
At times, the plot spins a little too often, too neatly, and many, many bodies fall. But Beer’s adept at testing her hero’s flair for getting out of tight spaces, and the results are often hilarious. (My favorite is the time he’s forced to impersonate a medical student during hospital rounds, during which Emmerich proves ingenious as well as lucky.) Most of these situations occur because, after sizing up the incredible risks he faces, he goes ahead nevertheless.
Along the way, he tries to train his newbie assistant, Ferdinand Winter, a young man whose sensitivities, desire to follow the rules, and privileged background earn his boss’s disdain. Winter’s grandmother, who openly mourns the kaiser and seems to blame Emmerich for his abdication, adds a little spice — and thievery — to the relationship between the two men. But Emmerich, who’s had a hard life, is compassionate at heart, showing regard for anyone in Vienna struggling to get by, especially veterans like himself, so you sense that eventually, he’ll warm to Ferdinand.
Meanwhile, though, the pair witness a city still reeling from the war, suffering hopelessness, tuberculosis, pervasive crime, and crushing poverty. It’s enough to break anyone’s heart:
As he had feared, inside they encountered the most miserable squalor. The dwelling — this form of lodging didn’t deserve the name home — was a dark hole with barely any air to breathe. Passing through the musty kitchen, its walls covered with mold, they entered a room that served as the living room, bedroom, and work space. It was perhaps four strides across, six strides long, and dimly lit by a flickering petroleum lamp. That was it. No other space.
The atmosphere in which Beer immerses her characters provides more than background. The homeless shelters (five-night limit), the incessant thievery, degradation, and sickness contrast sharply with the few oases of wealth and privilege. Beer knows her postwar Vienna thoroughly, selecting just the right details, and you breathe the same foul air as her characters, smell the same vile odors.
The Second Rider (which, by the way, refers to the Four Horsemen) introduces a series. If the subsequent installments are anything like this one, I predict many successful adventures for August Emmerich.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.